Lent 2007



Augustine thought of the time before Easter as symbolic of “this present life,” and the time after Easter as symbolic of eternal life to come – much the way the Bible often speaks to us symbolically of Babylon and Jerusalem. [Prosper Guéranger speaks of this in his classic The Liturgical Year, quoted in A Lent Sourcebook: The Forty Days (Liturgical Training Publications, 1990), vol. 2, p. 43.]

There is a sadness in Lent, a deep, violet, introspective sadness. In Roman Catholic worship we can hear echoes of that muted sorrow in our silencing of the Gloria at Mass and our laying aside the joyous and victorious acclamation Alleluia, till those songs break forth again in the pre-dawn growing light of Easter.

Lent within Us

In Lent we also lay aside some of our normal, earthly consolations. As kids we talked about “giving up” things for Lent, maybe movies, for example, or ice cream. There is a kind of comforting distraction in movies and ice cream. In Lent we pledge to be a little less distracted from what goes on inside us. We pay attention to important things that take place within us – in the arena of virtue and sin. It is easy to be a little sad when we attend to our inner ideals and see how we don’t always live up to them.

God’s grace is with us always, even in the darkest moments of “this present life” – and that turns our otherwise sad Lent into a “joyful season” (as the first Lenten Preface says in the Roman Missal). On Lent’s Fourth Sunday, two weeks ago, we celebrated that joy: Laetare, exhorted the entrance antiphon: “Rejoice.”

Roses bloom at that time of spring along the Mediterranean shores; snows melt a bit in more northern climes. Even nature begins to rejoice.

On that Sunday we began Gospel readings of God’s mercy and forgiveness. These past two Sundays two different but complementary stories have given us an intimate look into the heart of God.

Then the monumental story of Christ’s Passion and death on Palm Sunday will take our understanding of that loving mercy and forgiveness to a yet higher plane. We will celebrate that immense and mighty love in the Paschal Triduum of Last Supper, Passion, death – and then resurrection. It will be Easter.

Learning Jesus’ Way These Days

In this year of reading Luke’s Gospel, the last couple Sundays before Holy Week toss a bit of a challenge to us here as the third millennium begins. We – all of us, our whole world, I mean, but especially the Christians, of course – have had two thousand years to learn the spirit of Jesus. We’ve learned a bit. If you watch, say, the movie Gladiator, you can see what it was like before we learned some things from Jesus.

But we’re not finished learning. If you watch the evening news, you can notice we’ve got a lot further to go. The End-of-Lent Gospels try to help us with an important, but apparently very hard, lesson from Jesus.

Powerful Phrases

The first guitar strum of a favorite song, the particular beat leading into a favorite rap record, the first chords of a favorite symphony leap into our ears and thrill us; they can be for us powerful symbols – a foretaste, a promise – of all that follows. These tiny samples of familiar and favorite things can conjure up suddenly the entire experience. Some well-remembered phrases can do that, too.

Scripture isn’t the only place where that happens: try, “Four score and seven years ago….” Or, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….”

Listen to this phrase: “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus….” Easy to recognize, isn’t it? Christian worship often uses such phrases as symbols, symbols that transport us to another place and time. At this time of year, for example, listen for these words at the beginning of a reading from Exodus: “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt….” It’s another such phrase, a mighty symbol of the wondrous story that follows.

A Favorite Story

Consider this one: “A certain man had two sons.” Jesus speaks that line. It’s famous. It’s the beginning of his story about the Prodigal Son, one of the favorite stories of the last two thousand years. We heard it just a couple weeks ago in most of the churches of Western Christianity.

Take a look at the stories the Sunday Gospels present to us these last few weeks of Lent. They are stories of mercy and forgiveness.

Luke has a good perspective for such stories. With the same profound tenderness we find in his descriptions of Christ’s Nativity, Luke here shows us how love can once again transcend normal expectations, how it can fill a sad and wounded heart with prodigal mercy, and bring youthful strength back to the aged, solemn legs of one who has not run these long many years.

A Prodigal Son

Can you picture it – the Prodigal Son returning to his father? It seems easy for me to feel the thoughts and cares of the young son’s heart as he takes the road back to his father. What I have trouble with, though, is his decision to go back; I don’t know if I could do that. It was such a great risk.

I think he must have known his father well – well enough to know that he would be received. But he couldn’t have guessed his father would overwhelm him with such generous mercy and forgiveness. He didn’t guess, I’m sure, that was how the opening scene would go.

Imagine him making his way down the road to where his father’s land was. Imagine the turmoil in his heart.

Or the abysmal emptiness of a heart near despair. Sometimes the heart grows numb; sometimes hope runs out and the heart seems to lie dead within. Feet move leadenly forward, almost in spite of the person using them. It’s just inertia that makes one continue: to stop would take more decision power than the person has left, and so one just plods on in the same direction one started in.

Let our musings yield to the events of the story. With whatever feelings were within him – or with a heart and mind empty of all feeling – he sees his father. Imagine that scene: he catches sight of his father – his old and venerable father – running down the road toward him. Could he believe his eyes? Did he wonder if it was a mirage? Did it even register on the awful blackness of a heart too benumbed to care?

A Prodigal Father

We recognize familiar things and people because we have an image of them in our mind. If they present themselves in a form too far from our experience of them, we don’t recognize them. If it’s been long since we’ve seen them, their memory can fade; if they look a little different now, it may be hard to match present appearance with what we were used to. A faded memory might not be enough to provide recognition then.

No, one would have to know those people or things very well. One would have to have often cherished their image in mind and heart.

So, here comes this young man over the crest of the hill or across the far horizon. He’s different now from the last time his father saw him: a little older, a lot more care-worn, thinner no doubt, hesitant perhaps, dirtier from all that work with the pigs, scragglier, more tattered, tired from his earlier life-style, his labor, and his travel, dragging himself up the road. It would be easy to mistake him for someone unknown.

Not for this father, though. This father must know his son very well; he must have kept his image so alive in his heart that the recognition – as it does seem in Jesus’ story – is instantaneous. Immediately: It is my son!

As soon as he sees his son, off he runs – suddenly, immediately, at that very moment.

God the Father

Here’s another thought. As we so often understand this story, we take the Prodigal Father as a figure for God. Consider again the idea that the Father runs, i.e., goes as fast as he can, to his son. Consider that he starts the instant he sees him.

Now recall that (in one understanding of the parable, at least) God is the Father we’re talking about. Compare God’s speed of movement with the old, stately Near-Eastern gentleman’s. Compare sight, also: how long would it take for God to be able to see someone coming along a road? Add those two times together – basically, zero plus zero.

So, how long would it take for God to meet a repentant person? How long a road do you have to travel before God can see you? How long does it take God to move from where he would be to where you are?

So, how long do we have to wait for God’s forgiveness?

It is interesting in this connection, too, to recall that it is not the Prodigal Son who completes the trek back to his father’s; it is the Father himself who runs down the road and brings that return to completion.

God’s forgiveness – how fast does it come?

How long is zero?

“Coming Back to Oneself”

Notice, though, as Augustine’s words remind us, that the boy had to “come back to himself” before he could go back to his father ( Sermon 112A, 3-4). Instead of the distractions of dissipation and wasteful spending that clamored too loudly for the boy to hear anything else, he needed quietly to look inward toward himself. It was there he saw his true state. He began to know himself – as Augustine’s famous prayer and his thoughts on Lent remind us: Noverim me: Let me know myself.

There within, also, were memories – the memories of his father and of the kindness he’d always shown his children. In that memory the boy had a foretaste of his father’s forgiveness. We could even say it was the father himself who caused that idea of returning.

What is Forgiveness?

James Dallen, in keeping with his thorough work on forgiveness and the sacrament of reconciliation, sums up a good understanding of forgiveness: to remove obstacles that stand in the way of union, unity within oneself, unity within a community (s.v. Forgiveness, in Michael Downey, ed. New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (Liturgical Press, 1993), p. 406). When you accept forgiveness you can be one with God – and one with yourself.

When we forgive, it is said, in that moment we no longer demand the debt be repaid, no longer expect the wounding words will taken back. We consider in that moment that the debt – money or apology or whatever – is cancelled. Whoever was in debt to us is – as far as we’re concerned – set free.

More than that, we no longer have to carry the burden of a debt that is not paid back to us. That happens when we release the other person, when we forgive them. We are set free.

The Woman Taken in Adultery

The following Sunday’s Gospel took up where the Prodigal Son story left off. It is the Lord himself here who shows forgiveness, not just an imaginary father in a parable.

You remember the event. A group of scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman they accused of adultery. They quoted to Jesus the Law that such a woman should be stoned. Jesus said nothing but began writing on the ground with his finger.

They persisted. He said, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then he went back to writing. The accusers began to slink away, leaving the woman alone in front of Jesus, who refused to condemn her.

In this incident Jesus redefines justice and what we think of as the demands of justice. In his actions, the woman is forgiven – by Jesus, and by those who had accused her and shouted for her death – by Jesus out of his compassionate and forgiving love, by the accusers out of their recognition of their own lack of justice. No longer was anyone demanding anything of her – except Jesus’ gentle and liberating command, “Sin no more.”

On Palm Sunday, Luke will tell us of the Passion of Jesus. That previous Sunday, John’s Gospel told us of the compassion of Jesus. The two are not separate: if it were not for the compassion of God there would have been no Passion of the Christ.

In Palm Sunday’s Gospel we see all of that played out on a cosmic stage.

The Week of Palm Sunday

By writing in the dust of a Palestinian street, Jesus obtained for the accused woman the reluctant but effective forgiveness of a snarling bunch of vengeful people who found in the law a stipulation that suddenly served their selfish purposes: punishing the woman and tricking Jesus into a decision they could then accuse him of and thus be rid of him and the challenge he was for them..

The Gospels of the next two Sundays, Palm-and-Passion Sunday and Easter Sunday, show us by what power Jesus grants forgiveness. The sins of all he takes on himself. This time he is the accused. Pontius Pilate does the writing, and hangs it high above the ground on a hill.

And the forgiveness this time is not reluctant; it is not wrung out of a vengeful God. It is the fulfillment of a loving God’s plan formed long ago.

For Us

Without the events of these following two Sundays’ Gospels, the kind thoughts of the previous two Sundays might remain just only kind thoughts. In light of the death and resurrection of Christ, though, those two seemingly quiet stories of forgiveness thunder out through our world, bringing grace, confidence, peace and repentance to the likes of us.

But the likes of us – that’s whom Jesus has left to continue his work in the world.

As so often, his kind and gentle deeds and words console and comfort us, and show us how deeply loved we are by the greatest, all-powerful Force in the universe. They also call us to recognize, though, that Jesus wants us to follow in his ways. We are charged with the task of bringing forgiveness to corners of the world where Jesus never walked during his earthly life.

The vengeful and scheming still try to stone or crucify their enemies – usually figuratively, but not always – and so much of the world has not been set free from such people.

Can we help? Can we, after Lent helps us “come back to ourselves” and Easter renews us – can we extend God’s forgiveness to more of the world?

That, I think, is the challenge these end-of-Lent Sundays toss out to us:

Forgiven, can we forgive?

For some insights on the father of the Prodigal Son I am indebted to Sr. Sarah Sharkey, OP, PhD, Professor at Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas.

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